Say this for these Charlotte Hornets – they sure know how to double-wrap a game in drama.
Lance Stephenson banked in a 33-foot three-pointer at the double-overtime buzzer Friday night, sending the Hornets to a 122-119 home victory over Atlanta.
Stephenson had called for the ball in the timeout huddle before the shot, but he sure didn’t call “bank” on this three-pointer he hurled from Hickory. He hadn’t made a three all season, either.
Didn’t matter. Stephenson banged it home when it counted most, then leaped onto the scorer’s table at Time Warner Cable Arena and pounded his chest as a crowd of 15,891 exulted.
Fans hugged and high-fived each other, and for a few minutes it felt like 1988 all over again. How long the Hornets’ buzz continues is questionable, but there’s no doubt for now that it’s real and not just a marketing slogan.
“That was my first game-winning shot,” Stephenson said later, and he was talking about his entire basketball career, not just the NBA. “To hit that shot – a lot of emotion came out. ... I felt like I hadn’t made a shot all season.”
It was the third time in Charlotte’s four home dates that the game has been decided in the final seconds. The Hornets (3-3) aren’t yet good enough to blow anybody out but aren’t bad enough to lose badly, either, and so for now they seem to concentrate on making everyone stick around for the whole game.
No one minded this time. And although Kemba Walker is generally the player who takes last-second shots for the Hornets, no one minded that Stephenson took a turn, either.
“I hope it helps him,” said Walker, who was a decoy on the final play. “He’s capable of doing that sort of thing.”
“He said in the huddle, ‘Give me the – ball,’” said Al Jefferson, who scored 34 points, grabbed nine rebounds and fought off cramps late with another monstrous game. “When a man speaks like that, you’ve got to give it to him.”
It was Stephenson’s first big-time shot for the Hornets since the team made him their big-ticket free-agent acquisition over the summer. And it capped off a huge game for Stephenson, who had 17 points and 13 rebounds.
He still is shooting only 31.7 percent from the field, but he leads the Hornets in rebounding (10.5 per game) and assists (5.3). He has already proven to be a valuable member of the team. But he needed something like this to thoroughly get welcomed into the fold.
We may have just witnessed a turning point in Charlotte’s season.
The Hornets will start a four-game West Coast road trip at the L.A. Lakers (0-5) Sunday, and it would have been an awfully long plane flight Saturday if they hadn’t pulled this one out. Charlotte blew a six-point lead in the final 25 seconds of the first overtime, and Stephenson contributed to that with a turnover.
Charlotte has gone to Walker almost exclusively in the final moments of games for the past couple of years, because Walker can create his own shot more easily than anyone else. But on the final play after Stephenson’s plea in the huddle, coach Steve Clifford drew up a play for Lance. Stephenson threw the inbounds pass to Marvin Williams with 2.7 seconds left, then got a return handoff and fired up a prayer that was answered.
Lucky? Sure it was. No one purposely flings it off the backboard from that angle. But it’s the sort of boost Stephenson needs, as he tries to find his way between the looming shadows of Jefferson and Walker and carve out space for himself
Atlanta has long had Charlotte’s number. The Hawks had won 11 of the last 12 against the Hornets going into this game and the last six in a row in Charlotte. The only exception in the win streak came last April, when the Hawks rested most of their starters at the end of the season and Charlotte squeaked out a two-point victory.
And Atlanta nearly won this one a bunch of times. Atlanta, in fact, first had the ball with 2.7 seconds left and the game tied at 119 before Kyle Korver was called for an offensive foul that absolutely incensed the Hawks.
It looked then like triple overtime was likely.
And then came Stephenson’s stunner.